By now, employers across the world are well aware of the Great Resignation phenomenon and watching as employees leave their jobs in droves, presumably in search of higher pay, better benefits and more flexibility. But, as experts look to determine the cause of the Great Resignation, they’re finding that it’s not always an issue of industry, role or pay. Rather, the culprit lies often within the organization in the form of employee disengagement.
Gallup recently reported that 2021 was the first year in more than a decade in which the percentage of engaged workers declined, with just 34% engaged and 16% actively disengaged.
Like many job market trends, this lack of employee engagement is blamed primarily on the long-term effects of the pandemic. That’s because the pandemic not only put millions out of work, but it also took a serious toll on the mental health of many people, particularly those in frontline and customer-facing industries, like healthcare, restaurants and retail. Further, the pandemic caused many to reexamine their work/life balance, rethinking what really mattered to them and where they spent the majority of their time. Now, more than ever, people want to feel like their work matters and that their hard work is valued.
By some, this post-pandemic trend of declining employee engagement has been dubbed “The Great Discontent,” while others have referred to it as “The Silent Resignation.” Either way, labor market experts feel it’s partly to blame for the talent shortage. In the thick of COVID-19 in 2020, workers remained loyal to their companies, worried about what the fragile economy would mean for the future of their jobs. But now, workers find themselves in the driver’s seat, keenly aware of their value to employers—and their expectations and needs are shifting.
Notably, these needs are unique to each employee and, when met, motivate them to do their best work. However, actively disengaged employees are typically disgruntled and disloyal because they feel most of their workplace needs are not being met. Therefore, when it comes to improving employee engagement, there’s no “quick fix.” Rather, it requires a cultural shift, as well as providing employees with things like a clear career path, recognition, a sense of belonging and flexibility. And, in the wake of COVID-19, these factors are more important than ever in driving employee engagement and loyalty in an organization.
The Benefits of an Engaged Workforce
While employee needs have shifted due to the pandemic, employee engagement has long been a foundational component to business success: Engaged employees produce better outcomes than their disengaged peers, regardless of industry and company size. As such, companies with an engaged workforce are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than their counterparts. Moreover, highly engaged employees are also more likely to exceed performance expectations and are also more invested in the long-term goals of the company. Plus, engaged employees are not only top performers, but they’re also less likely to leave an organization. Accordingly, companies with low employee engagement report turnover rates that are 31% to 50% higher than companies with low levels of employee engagement.
Conversely, disengaged employees also affect a business’ bottom line and overall productivity—and the cost of an unengaged workforce is significant: According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report, the productivity loss of unengaged* and actively disengaged** employees is equal to 18% of their annual salary. So, for a company of 10,000 employees with an average salary of $50,000 per employee, disengagement costs more than $60 million per year. In total, Gallup estimates that low engagement costs the global economy $8.1 trillion annually.
* Unengaged employees are psychologically unattached to their work and company. Because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work.
** Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.
Source: Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report
Components of a Post-COVID Employee Engagement Strategy
Alternatively, the benefits of an engaged workforce are clear, both in ensuring the success and profitability of a business and as a strategy for retaining employees and combating the Great Resignation. But, what does a solid employee engagement strategy look like? The following components have emerged as common themes to address post-COVID worker expectations and increase employee engagement.
Flexibility has always been a valued element of the work experience, but the need has increased tremendously as a result of COVID-19. Now that employees know it’s possible to work successfully from home—proving they can be productive away from the office even under difficult circumstances—there’s no going back.
In an interview with CBS News, LinkedIn’s chief economist, Karin Kimbrough, shared that Americans are 2.5 times more likely to apply to a job that’s remote versus a job that’s not. However, flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean working from home; not everyone thrives in that environment, and it may not even be possible given their role or industry. Rather, flexibility means letting employees determine when and where they do their best work—and being flexible enough to accommodate an all-remote, all-on-site or hybrid schedule.
Appropriately, LinkedIn announced in July 2021 that the company would allow employees to choose their preferred work set-up, which includes a fully remote option. This policy applies to its global workforce of more than 16,000 employees.
Closely tied to flexibility is the need for a healthy balance between work and personal life. The pandemic fundamentally changed how people work, as well as how they view work. As a result, their work/life boundaries and expectations have changed—and they have no desire to go back to the way things were. In fact, a 2021 LinkedIn survey found that a healthy work/life balance was the highest priority for job-seekers, outweighing even excellent pay and benefits.
Globally, countries like France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, India and others are modernizing their labor laws to protect people’s right to a healthy work/life balance and the “right to disconnect.” For instance, in Portugal, new legislation makes it illegal for employers to contact remote workers after hours. Clearly, employers that create a people-first culture that acknowledges the complexities of juggling work on top of personal responsibilities demonstrate empathy—and, therefore, build employee trust and loyalty.
Unfortunately, too many employees feel undervalued and unappreciated at work—an issue only made worse by COVID burnout and a lack of physical proximity to leaders and colleagues. Employees need to receive timely acknowledgement and appreciation from their managers through regular check-ins or one-on-one meetings in order to feel that they are valued and their hard work is appreciated. Recognition from peers is also an important factor in making employees feel appreciated and respected.
With this in mind, in 2020, PeopleScout developed The Big Thank You campaign for King’s College Hospitals in the UK as a way of strengthening its employer brand to help recruit healthcare assistants and nurses. For the project, photographs were taken of 166 participants across the hospital and 350 thank you messages were collected to create 350 pieces of beautiful, highly visible artwork displayed in 18 different installations across the hospital’s three main sites. And, although the initial goal of the campaign was recruitment, it was amazingly well-received by hospital staff, as well, who showed genuine appreciation for being recognized on such a grand scale.
“The staff response to these images has been extraordinary and has created a real buy-in and the internal buzz that we were after. It has been fantastic and has gone way beyond my expectations.”
Nicola Ranger, Chief Nurse & Executive Director of Midwifery
In this world of remote work, feeling a sense of connection or belonging is even more of a challenge. Virtual work can cause us to lose the personal touch and Zoom meeting fatigue is real. What’s more, feelings of disconnectedness or exclusion may preoccupy employees and cause them to be unable to put their full energy into work. Eventually, this inevitably leads to a decrease in productivity and effort, and can even influence an employee’s intent to stay with the company.
Conversely, when people feel connected to their colleagues and their leaders, they thrive. As an example, professional services firm EY in the UK has committed to fostering an environment in which all differences are valued and employees feel a sense of belonging. For instance, in 2018, they launched an internal “belonging” campaign that included internal communications, posters and interactive digital experiences. Then, in 2019, the firm launched a “strong when you belong” newsletter that has helped elevate the voices of employees from a variety of backgrounds.
Along the same lines, the Gender Working Group at EY also ran a series of sessions (dubbed “Let’s Chat”) to create forums for employees to connect, learn, listen, and share experiences to support and grow together. These efforts demonstrate the power of bringing people together, particularly during what has been a difficult time.
Career Development & Growth
Employees want a defined and visible career path to envision a future with the company, and conversations about development are especially vital to retaining Millennials. Moreover, companies that invest in the growth of their employees see a direct influence on employee engagement and retention.
For instance, Microsoft has prioritized employee engagement and invested in the overall employee experience by introducing a program that helps its contact center agents be more productive, responsible, and engaged through advanced gamification in a platform that combines learning and performance data: The program creates personalized goals for each employee with reminders of how each activity they do gets them closer to those goals. Soon after the program was implemented, 78% of Microsoft’s call center agents said they felt more empowered and ready to do well at work.
Other Factors to Consider
It’s worth noting here that when it comes to employee engagement, one size does not fit all; different workplace needs have different effects on different people. For example, flexibility might be more important for working parents, whereas career development is a key factor for younger employees. As a result, the best employee engagement efforts focus on the individual, with managers truly understanding what motivates their team and helping their employees access those motivators.
Speaking of managers, an employee’s view of their role and the company is largely formed through their experiences with their leader. More precisely, companies with strong employee engagement invest in developing effective managers that champion a positive employee experience. Clearly, there’s truth to the cliché, “People don’t leave companies; they leave managers”: Gallup determined that it took more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engaged them, whereas it took next to nothing to poach most disengaged workers.
10 Strategies for Improving Employee Engagement
Importantly, employee engagement efforts don’t have to be overly complex or break the bank; consider implementing just one or two of these practical strategies to improve employee engagement within your organization.
- Talk with your team members to understand what motivates each of them. Then, identify at least one strategy for meeting that need.
- Add 10 minutes to your next team meeting agenda for “shout-outs,” in which leaders and employees recognize others for exceptional work.
- Schedule recurring one-on-ones with your direct reports and make a conscious effort to ask them about something that interests them personally before talking about work.
- Create a formal process to identify skills gaps or new skills employees need to succeed in their current or future roles.
- Start a peer recognition program using an online tool.
- Invest in a formal learning and development program, such as LinkedIn Learning.
- Survey employees about their preferred work schedules and locations, and then accommodate those preferences as much as possible.
- Provide an open channel for employees to provide feedback, ideally allowing for anonymous responses.
- Have frequent conversations with employees regarding their career goals and aspirations. Establish a clear path for reaching those goals within your organization.
- Communicate proactively and often. Remind employees that they’re a part of something bigger and play an important role in the company’s success. Share company strategy, performance, successes and lessons learned.
While many of the pandemic’s effects feel out of our control, employee engagement is an area where employers can have a significant influence. In this historically competitive labor market, it’s crucial to build a motivated, engaged and loyal employee base in order to retain top talent. And, an employee-first approach centered on communication and connection—thereby enabling employees’ best work—will ensure employee well-being and, ultimately, the success of your business.